April 26, 2011


[The military’s move into the town seemed to signal a new, harrowing chapter in a crackdown that has already killed nearly 400 people. Until now the government has been hewing to a mix of concessions and brute force, but its actions Monday indicated that it had chosen the latter, seeking to crush a wave of dissent in virtually every province that has shaken the once uncontested rule of President Bashar al-Assad, 45.]


Syrian troops in tanks and armored vehicles moved into
the southern town Dara’a and opened fire on Monday,
according to residents
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian Army stormed the restive city of Dara’a with tanks and soldiers and helped detain dozens in towns across the country Monday in an escalation of the crackdown on Syria’s five-week-old uprising, according to residents and human rights activists. They said at least 25 people had been killed in Dara’a, with reports of bodies strewn in the streets.
The military’s move into the town seemed to signal a new, harrowing chapter in a crackdown that has already killed nearly 400 people. Until now the government has been hewing to a mix of concessions and brute force, but its actions Monday indicated that it had chosen the latter, seeking to crush a wave of dissent in virtually every province that has shaken the once uncontested rule of President Bashar al-Assad, 45.
“The government has decided to choose the path of violence and repression,” said a Syrian analyst in Beirut, who asked to remain anonymous for his safety. “How far can they go in this repression? That is the question.”
As in 1982, when it crushed an Islamist revolt and killed at least 10,000 people in Hama, the military again showed its willingness to use force to repress its own people. Though there were rumors of discord among soldiers, the leadership is still dominated by Mr. Assad’s minority sect, and its deployment to Dara’a illustrated that a crucial bastion of government support remained loyal — in stark contrast with Egypt, where the military’s refusal to fire on protesters proved decisive in President Hosni Mubarak’s fall.
The official Syrian news agency said Monday night that the military had entered the town at the request of citizens to hunt what it called “extremist terrorist groups.”
Dara’a, a town of low-slung buildings with 75,000 inhabitants, has become almost synonymous with the popular revolt that has posed the greatest challenge to four decades of rule by the Assad family. Protests erupted there in March after security forces arrested high school students accused of scrawling anti-government graffiti on a wall, galvanizing demonstrations that have spread from the Mediterranean coast and eastern regions dominated by Kurds to the steppe of southern Syria, where Dara’a is located.
Residents said at least eight tanks drove into the town before dawn, with 4,000 to 6,000 troops, though some estimates put the numbers far lower, in the hundreds. Water, electricity and phone lines were cut, making firsthand accounts difficult and the numbers impossible to verify, and nearby border crossings with Jordan were reported sealed. Snipers took positions on the roofs of mosques, residents said, and a mix of soldiers and armed irregular forces went house to house to search for protesters.
“There are bodies in the streets we can’t reach; anyone who walks outside is getting shot at,” said a resident of Dara’a who gave his name as Abdullah, reached by satellite phone. “They want to teach Syria a lesson by teaching Dara’a a lesson.”
A handful of videos posted on the Internet, along with residents’ accounts, gave a picture of a city under broad military assault, in what appeared to mark a new phase in the government crackdown. Tanks had not previously been used against protesters, and the force of the assault suggested that the military planned some sort of occupation of the town.
“It’s an attempt to occupy Dara’a,” Abdullah said.
He said soldiers had taken three mosques, but had yet to capture the Omari Mosque, where he said thousands had sought refuge. Since the beginning of the uprising last month, it has served as a headquarters of sorts for demonstrators. He quoted people there as shouting, “We swear you will not enter but over our dead bodies.”
He said residents had also tried to block roads with cement blocks and cars. “We didn’t pay such a high price to quit now,” he said.
For weeks, organizers have managed to circumvent the government’s attempt to black out news from Dara’a and cities like Homs. But it appeared to have more success Monday.
Organizers themselves had trouble reaching contacts, and only occasional videos emerged from the tumult. One showed heavily armed soldiers taking up positions behind walls, a few feet from a tank parked on a leafy avenue. In another, a young boy threw a chunk of concrete at a passing tank. Other videos showed a cloud of black smoke rising and volleys of heavy gunfire echoing in the distance.
“These are the reforms of Bashar al-Assad,” one resident said, as he filmed tanks entering the city. “He is reforming Dara’a with the tanks of Bashar al-Assad.”
Wissam Tarif, executive director of Insan, a human rights group, said his organization had a list of 25 people killed Monday in Dara’a.
The United States called the violence “completely deplorable.” Tommy Vietor, a National Security Council spokesman, said the Obama administration was considering sanctions against Syrian officials to “make clear that this behavior is unacceptable.”
At the United Nations, European and American officials circulated a draft Security Council statement condemning the crackdown and calling on the government to respect human rights and freedom of expression. The draft endorses a call by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, released last Friday, urging an independent investigation into the mounting death toll.
Across the country of more than 22 million, the government continued a campaign of mass arrests, protesters said. Security forces searched house to house in Azra, another restive town near Dara’a. Activists said security forces had also entered two towns on the capital’s outskirts — Douma and Maadamiah — detaining dozens of people.
Clashes have been especially pronounced in the poor towns that encircle the capital, Damascus, and activists said there were reports of shooting during the raids.
In Jabla, a coastal city inhabited by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority and members of the minority Alawite sect, from which the government draws much of its support, security forces killed at least 12 people in a crackdown that began Sunday and persisted into the night. One resident said protesters had burned an army car and taken a soldier hostage.
“The army is deployed all over the area,” said another resident, who gave his name as Abu Ahmed. “I can’t describe how bad the situation was all night. It’s a street war.”
He said the shootings had exacerbated tension between Sunnis and Alawites, a potentially dangerous manifestation in a country with a mosaic of religious and ethnic minorities, many of whom fear the government’s collapse may endanger them.
“The plate has shattered,” he said, using an Arabic expression. “There’s strife between us now, it’s been planted, and the problem is going to exist forever in Jabla.”
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and employees of The New York Times from Beirut and Damascus, Syria.


The UN has said widespread shelling by the Sri Lankan government killed most of the tens of thousands of civilians who died in the final months of the 25-year-long war, in 2009.

Many thousands of Tamil people were displaced over 
the final months of fighting in 2009
The report also accuses Tamil Tigers separatists of using civilians as human shields. The UN is calling for an independent investigation into what it says could constitute war crimes.

Sri Lanka had asked the UN not to publish its findings. It said the report could damage reconciliation efforts.

The government has consistently denied allegations that it targeted civilians, and has rejected the report's findings as biased and fraudulent.

'Credible allegations'

The report paints a brutal image of the final offensive on the Tamil enclave in northern Sri Lanka between January and May 2009.

It said that hospitals, UN centres and ships belonging to international aid group the Red Cross were deliberately shelled by government forces, AP reports.

It describes prisoners being shot in the head and women raped, while the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) used 330,000 civilians as human shields, and shot those who tried to escape.

The UN experts said there were "credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international rights law was committed both by the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity".

It urged the government to issue a formal and public recognition of its role in responsibility for the extensive civilian casualties in the final stages of the conflict.

The panel also recommended that the Sri Lankan government should respond to the serious allegations "by initiating an effective accountability process beginning with genuine investigations" which would meet international standards.

The Sri Lankan government has described a leaked copy of the report as "fundamentally flawed and patently biased".

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he could not launch an international investigation into war crimes allegations unless the Sri Lankan government agreed, or member states called for it.

But the BBC's Barbara Plett, in New York, says that the country continues to have strong allies on both the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council.

'Controversial report'

However, the UN will carry out a review of its own actions during the conflict. The report criticises UN officials for not pressing the Sri Lankan government hard enough to exercise restraint and for not going public with high casualty figures which, it says, would have put more pressure on the government.

The highly controversial document was the result of a 10-month process of gathering evidence. Publication was repeatedly delayed as Sri Lanka urged the secretary general not to publish its findings.

In a statement, the secretary general's spokesperson said: "The decision to release the report was made as a matter of transparency and in the broader public interest."

He said a copy of the report had been made available "in its entirety" to the government of Sri Lanka on 12 April, adding that the government had failed to respond to a repeated offer to publish its response to the panel's finding alongside the report.

US Democratic Congressman Howard Berman, of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Sri Lanka should ensure those involved in human rights violations are held to account.

"I am deeply concerned that the government of Sri Lanka has thus far chosen to protest the report's conclusions rather than accept the recommendations of the UN panel," California lawmaker Mr Berman said in a statement.

Our correspondent says that a divided Security Council was initially reluctant to address Sri Lanka's war and much less call for an inquiry.

However, the secretary general appointed the panel after mounting evidence of serious human rights abuses and massive civilian casualties in the five-month offensive which ended the war.